28 Dec 2012
- FOR THE LEADER-POST ED KAPP
Dog River Howlers’ Julia Folk tries to avoid the tackle of a Cuban national team player during the Howlers’ recent trip.It’s impossible to tell just how popular rugby can get in Cuba — opinions on the matter vary even among the Howlers’ local athletes — but regardless of how big the sport gets, the Howlers have undoubtedly played a meaningful role in its development.
For the past three years, the Howlers have competed in and helped to stage an annual seven-a-side rugby tournament in Cuba — the International Havana Howlers sevens rugby tournament — to encourage other clubs to make the trek to the island. The Howlers, in an effort to help Cuba make up for lost time in the highly competitive and long-standing world of rugby, have also donated equipment and uniforms and have sent trained coaches and referees to the country to share their expertise.
“They’re most appreciative,” said Fix, who has been involved in rugby in various capacities for nearly 40 years. “They realize that without the Howlers, Cuban rugby would not be where it is and they’re very appreciative.
“When these kids go down there and they say they’re with the Dog River Howlers, they’re held in very high esteem. One reason is because we’re a good team and we’ve done really well down there — usually winning or coming in second — but the rugby community realizes that without the Howlers, Cuban rugby wouldn’t be where it is today ... They realize the impact that Canadians — Canada and the Howlers — have had on their game.”
But why have the Howlers put so much time and resources into helping develop the sport they play in Cuba — an island some 4,000 kilometres away from Regina?
According to Fix, the motivation was quite simple.
“The average (Cuban) makes $20 a month — a doctor makes $35 a month — but they have what I call a great joy for life,” Fix explained. “And I saw the passion that they had for the game. There are great, great athletes, but they just had no support. You can’t play without balls, you can’t develop a game without balls and jerseys and boots and people to teach what they know.
“I saw that they are very genuinely passionate about life and about the game. They just needed a bit of a helping hand.”
Those involved with the sport in Cuba — including Chukin Chao, a long-time ally of the Howlers — seem to have made the most out of the Howlers’ helping hand — so much so that Fix sees the Howlers’ role diminishing now that the sport is more self-sufficient in Cuba, which recently joined the ranks of the North American Caribbean Rugby Association.
Fix is happy with what the Howlers have helped accomplish with the sport in Cuba, but he insists that his mission, which includes supporting a small orphanage that the team visits annually and trips to historical and cultural sites on the island, is only partly based on spreading the word about the sport he loves.
“It’s a learning experience for these kids,” said Fix, whose Howlers are involved in several good causes outside of rugby. “They’ve got to raise some money, save some money to go on this trip. They get to play some high-level rugby — a number of them go on to play for national teams — and they get a great cultural experience. And later on when it’s their turn, they’ve got to step up to the plate and do the same thing. It’s the circle of life that I hope that these young people grasp and many of them do. We always say, ‘It’s more than a game; it’s a way of life.’
“Rugby is just a vehicle — it’s part of your education, part of your life skills.”
This philosophy isn’t lost on Angela and Amanda Thompson, sisters who counted their trip to the orphanage as a highlight of their Cuban experience.
“Words can’t describe how good of an experience (the orphanage visit) was,” said Angela, a kinesiology student at the University of Regina. “It was really hard to leave, but they were super-excited about everything they got and ecstatic about us visiting them ... It was kind of tough to see, but the smiles on their faces and the way they lit up melted my heart.”
“The orphanage was absolutely amazing,” added Amanda, who works at the General Hospital. “They were so grateful for everything that we had and they just wanted to take everything. We brought so much, but the Safeway bags were probably the best things that we bought, because they were just shoving everything in the bags — they couldn’t even carry them.
“It was amazing to be able to bring so much happiness to the kids.”